An astonishing fact: my horse Lukas receives over one hundred e-mail messages a day! How can that be you might ask, what could anyone possibly write to a horse about? Let me give you a few examples: "Lukas makes my autistic son smile, thank you from the bottom of my heart." "Lukas is a beacon to the world - showing how truly remarkable and wonderful our animal friends are. I always knew they had intelligence and emotions, now I can prove it to the skeptics I know." And one of my favorites, "Thank you, Karen and Lukas, for changing people's perception of animals - I own a horse rescue and we've been getting more calls than ever from prospective adopters. Lukas is helping to bring greater understanding and vast improvement into the lives of horses world-wide. "
As glowing as all this sounds, this wasn't always the case. Lukas (race name, Just Ask Mike) had three unmemorable race finishes as a two-year-old and injured both front legs. After leaving the racetrack, he changed hands several times during the next six years and ended up emaciated and neglected in a yard. He was rescued by a neighbor, who took pity on the then eight-year-old chestnut gelding: "You could see every rib and his tail was a solid bat of dried mud." The neighbor, a local trainer, had hoped to recondition Lukas and include him in her amateur jumping program. After two years though, he still wasn't fitting in according to her, and I purchased him after seeing his photo in a sale advertisement.
Working full-time as a psychiatric nurse, I had our (then) barn trainer begin some basic lessons on him with the plan to compete him at lower level dressage shows. This proved to be the last straw for Lukas: in a very short time he became sullen and resistant to the point of becoming extremely dangerous - bucking, bolting and spooking (even in his own stall). "He's a throwaway, Karen, what do you expect? Quit wasting your time on him," I was told by more than a few well meaning observers. I discontinued the trainer, however, I was having serious doubts about being able to turn Lukas around at this point. After 30 years of training horses, I had just about met my match with Lukas.
Before giving up, I decided to draw from my behavioral background and also try to find out what Lukas would enjoy doing. My system uses a broad base of shaping techniques, clicker training and lots of positive reinforcement. So, I set about un-training by replacing unwanted behaviors with desirable outcomes. The responses that I substitute are tricks - fun and play being at the core of my system. I use games as a way to create a connection and build mutual confidence, respect and trust. In addition, I use liberty work (free/loose and without any equipment; I don't even own a whip) to demonstrate the potential for non-force training. It must also be said that I employ patience and kindness, affection and appreciation - without which none of this would have been possible.
"Something that he would enjoy doing," as I said - well, that was certainly the case! We started with the smile and are still going strong. To date, Lukas' liberty repertoire includes: posing, nodding yes and shaking his head no, a dry and wet kiss, fetching, being "blindfolded," catching, yawning, waving, pedestal work, Spanish Walk (forward and backward), the stay and come, sit, jambette (3 legged pivot), curtsey, passage, bow, crossing his front legs, laying down while I sit on him, feet together (front and back), hide and seek, acting lame, pushing a cart, and the rear. Much of his acclaim, however, comes from his cognitive abilities to identify letters, numbers and shapes and discriminate colors. In addition, he's also grasped the concepts of proportion, object permanence, spatial relationships, same/different and absentness. Above all though, I prize our bond which has attracted the most attention globally.
This once-upon-a -time "throwaway" - now a "million hit" horse - has appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, HLN, Inside Edition, World Entertainment News Network, Equisearch, EquineVIP, Equestrian Examiner, Discover Horses, Animal Talk Radio, Pet Life Radio, Pet Talk Live Radio, RFD-Radio and many more. The Associated Press and America On Line released feature stories about him. And his journey - which has become a message of hope and kindness for all creatures - has been in countless magazines, newsletters, blogs and newspapers world-wide. Lukas is ranked on Yahoo, Google and the World Records Academy as "The World's Smartest Horse" and Guinness is reviewing a record attempt by him: "Most numbers identified by a horse in one minute." All to show the happy results of gentle training and how wonderful and intelligent animals are.
Children especially are part of Lukas' mission - his appearances are geared toward involving families with an emphasis on responsible pet ownership. He is also the official Spokeshorse for After The Finish Line and a poster -boy for the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. Horse rescues across the country have claimed him as their shining example and he's even been invited to Washington to lobby for legislation. Many equine therapy groups have befriended him and he's associated with HEAL (Human-Equine Alliances for Learning) - an organization that helps trauma victims (Lukas' services are donated to help others). In addition, he was nominated for the 2010 Equine Vision Award sponsored by Pfizer and American Horse Publications. His spectacular documentary has just been released: The World's Smartest Horse ~ Dedicated to hope and happiness for all creatures
Also, Lukas' new book is available on Lulu (www.lulu.com) as an e-book or print version: "Playing With Lukas." Now, if only I could teach him to type!